On the night of July 28 — the night of his 21st birthday — Jayme McCrae should have been surrounded by family and friends, celebrating his official transition to adulthood.
Instead, he was alone, sleeping in his car on a freezing winter’s night, with the mercury barely above 0°C, in the Euroa McDonald’s car park.
In place of a cake and presents, all Jayme received were two short texts, both saying the same thing. Cold, impersonal messages that snapped any remaining threads of hope to which he was clinging.
“Your application for this rental was unsuccessful.”
The next morning he received three more, all from local real estate agencies, all rejections.
In that frustrating, defeating moment, Jayme picked up his phone and hurled it across the car park.
“I just felt so hopeless,” he said.
“Some of these properties I had a very good chance of getting, and just nothing.”
The hopelessness of that night is still reflected in Jayme’s eyes and he has only been homeless five months. Until two weeks ago, he was couch surfing at his brother’s girlfriend’s house.
But overwhelmed by the feeling he was becoming a burden — and with his mental health taking a hit as a result — Jayme packed all his possessions into his Mitsubishi Magna and drove to the Euroa Service Centre.
For the past two weeks, this has been his home.
The driver's seat of his car, kept upright to make room for his belongings, is now his bed.
But contrary to the stereotypes surrounding homelessness, Jayme is not unemployed — he has a job, working part-time at the Euroa McDonald’s.
He is not addicted to drugs or alcohol, he hasn’t committed a crime.
The only ‘blemish’ on his record is being unable to break into the region’s painfully tight rental market — a market currently ruled by spotless records and stable jobs and made even tighter by COVID-19.
In recent months, Jayme has made more than 100 applications for properties under $300 a week, but despite his most desperate efforts he has been unable to secure a private rental tenancy in the region.
“The rental market has been picked clean,” he said.
“This is why I struggle with the stereotypes that if someone is homeless, they must be in the wrong.
“But there are people like me — and I know there’s going to be more in the wake of COVID-19 — who are genuinely trying to get back on their feet.”
Born and raised in Wangaratta, Jayme’s struggles began when he was just four, after his dad walked out on the family.
That same year, his mother Suzanne received devastating news — she had a brain tumour.
After 12 months of treatments and doctors’ appointments, Jayme’s mum was told the cancer was terminal, and she had less than a year to live.
Unable to look after her children, she had no choice but to place Jayme and his three brothers in the foster care system.
She battled the tumour for the next six years.
“That was something I admired in her — she was a fighter, she didn't give up easily,” Jayme said.
In 2010, two days before her 50th birthday, Jayme's mother died; it's a day still too painful for him to speak of.
Initially “tossed” from home to home — some of them kinder than others — Jayme was eventually placed in a stable household with an elderly lady in the Warby Ranges.
“I was with her for eight years,” he said.
“There’s so much I owe her. She straightened my life out and gave me a better way of seeing the world.”
But as the health of his foster mother began to decline, Jayme was forced to move on, staying with another family for a year before he turned 18 and exited the system.
With little besides his senior VCAL certificate, Jayme began the hunt for a home and a job.
He lived with his brother short-term before securing his first rental in Euroa and a position at Blue Gum Farm, a local thoroughbred breeding hub.
He worked there four months before transitioning to the Euroa McDonald’s, moving in with friends in Benalla when his Euroa lease expired.
But when the landlord wanted to move back in, Jayme and his friends were forced to find other rentals.
Moving to Bendigo, Jayme rented there and worked at a local McDonald’s but the workplace soured and he reluctantly quit.
“I was in Bendigo for another month after that,” he said.
“Eventually I just said, ‘look, I can't find a job here, so I'm going to have to leave'.”
On March 10 this year, Jayme moved back to Euroa, where he returned to working at the McDonald’s and started couch surfing at his brother’s girlfriend’s house.
“My original plan was to couch surf for a month and build up enough funding to get my own place,” he said.
“The week I started searching for a house was when the pandemic lockdowns started.”
But while restrictions eventually eased, Jayme kept coming up empty-handed — even as he widened his search radius to Shepparton, Benalla and Seymour.
At times, it felt like the local market wasn’t even giving him a chance.
“Some properties weren’t even on the market for 24 hours. I'd shoot my expression of interest across and tell them my situation,” Jayme said.
“And they’d get back to me five minutes later and say, ‘No, applications are closed’.
“And I'm sitting there like, ‘that's not right at all’.”
As time wore on, Jayme grew increasingly anxious he was burdening his hosts.
“My brother’s girlfriend has four kids and they live in a three-bedroom rental, so it was already a tight squeeze,” he said.
“I was sleeping on a couch in their main lounge room. Because I work overnights, I had to sleep during the day, so she was working hard to keep the kids quiet while I slept.”
Jayme’s mental health began to unravel, to the point he had a breakdown.
“I'm someone who mentally can’t cope with others helping me,” he said.
“I want to look after myself, I want to be independent, because when someone helps me, I’m overwhelmed with the feeling I need to pay them back for it.”
Jayme woke one evening at midnight, crammed his belongings into his car and drove to his new home — the Euroa McDonald’s car park.
“In all honesty, after doing that, I felt some mental stress come off me,” he said.
Still on nightshift, Jayme strings up jackets to create a semblance of privacy and ward off the sun streaming through the car's windows.
There are so many things Jayme misses about having a home — the space, the privacy, that glorious feeling of stretching out on a bed.
He also misses his friends.
“They mostly live in Bendigo and Melbourne, so the best way to interact is through gaming,” he said.
“But I haven’t been able to do that from my car, so it’s been pretty hard.”
And yet, Jayme insists he’s “one of the lucky ones”.
Because while he may be homeless, he still has shelter, transport and electronics.
But sadly, like so many people trapped in this cycle, he has been temporarily stripped of the luxury of dreams.
Jayme would love to eventually step into a management role at McDonald’s — or maybe even, one day, open his own coffee shop or work with horses like he did on Blue Gum Farm.
But in the meantime, he’s holding onto the thin hope there’s a light — and a home — at the end of this seemingly endless tunnel.
And last week, for the first time in months, it seemed there might be.
Jayme received a call from Shepparton homelessness service BeyondHousing, offering him emergency accommodation for a week.
It was the first time he’d slept in a proper bed in five months.
That same night, a local real estate agent called — a Euroa woman had offered him a section in her house, where he could stay until he found stable accommodation.
Jayme was also contacted by a friend who offered to sign the lease for her Euroa rental over to him once it was up.
The morning after this whirlwind of phone calls, there is a cautiously hopeful light in Jayme’s eyes — and maybe, just maybe, that light shows that the end of the tunnel is in sight.
More about Shepparton's homelessness crisis